Concerns of India's underclass could drive country's political narrative

  • Samar Halarnkar, New Delhi
  • Updated: Feb 19, 2015 08:38 IST

Since India’s growth rate shot past China’s, it is easy for the Twitter-happy, mall-roaming, ever-aspirational urban Indian to believe that reports of cows on the roads are a western conspiracy and poverty may soon be a thing of the past. It would be even harder, for this proud person, to believe that there are Indians without a radio or bicycle, let alone a television or scooter.

Yet, more than 200 million Indians — equivalent to all of Brazil, a country two-and-a-half times larger — own none of these things and are officially classified as people with ‘zero assets’, as reported earlier this week. These numbers imply that one in six Indians lives untouched by the engine of economic growth. We do not know if they are dissatisfied with their lot but they cannot be particularly happy.

A little way up the ladder — as Indians start to get phones and/or television sets and plug into the shiny world beyond — they make their dissatisfaction clearly known. So it happened in Delhi, the world’s second-largest city. Whoever else voted for Arvind Gobind Ram Kejriwal, it is clear that the vast underclass of Delhi did. This underclass constitutes the core voter base of AAP and the former tax officer that India now affectionately knows as ‘mufflerman’.

But less than 10% of Dilliwalas are officially categorised as poor. So, what is this underclass? Vault across the poverty line and you will find that one in six Dilliwalas — the same proportion that the penurious, asset-less 200 million are to India’s 1.3 billion — earns less than Rs 13,500 per month, a difficult proposition in the country’s richest city.

Kejriwal succeeded because he consolidated this underclass of varying religions and castes into a voting bank that lent him all its electoral goodwill. Regardless of whether Delhi’s new chief minister utilises or squanders his windfall, the en masse voting offers a tantalising glimpse of the electoral and political possibilities on the bottom rungs — at a time when the growing middle-class, increasingly, guides the ladder’s direction.

This is the year, 2015, that the middle class crosses the 250 million mark, according to an estimate by McKinsey, a consultancy. Roughly the same number of people live under the poverty line (270 million in 2013), which is the ability to spend Rs 27 per day in rural areas and Rs 33 in urban areas.

Go one rung up the ladder and consider the people who live on less than Rs 77 per day (or $1.25, the poverty line set by the World Bank): That would roughly be 300 million. Set the line higher and the number grows.

My point is this: The actual numbers and poverty lines don’t matter. What does is that beyond the 200 million penurious Indians, there are large and significant millions who are only slightly better off but — by virtue of being plugged in to right-here-right-now expectations, garnered from their new phones or television sets — significantly more restless than the zero-assetwallahs.

This restlessness is accentuated by India’s rising inequality. Before the reforms of the 1990s, India was a much poorer country, but the gap between rich and poor was smaller. Between 1993 and 2009-10, according to World Bank and Asian Development Bank data, India’s Gini coefficient — a measure of inequality — worsened.

These phenomena of poverty, inequality and restlessness make India’s sprawling underclass primed for political representation. During the general elections, the Congress and Rahul Gandhi tried a bottom-up approach, ineffectually and vaguely, ignoring the middle rungs of the ladder. Narendra Modi and the BJP sent the message top-down, selling the middle-class dream to the lower rungs, aided greatly by Modi’s election-eve charisma. In Delhi, a chastened AAP and Kejriwal got the messaging right, focusing on the lower rungs but taking care not to ignore the middle.

This distributed messaging may be the way to go, but any party that wants to grow its vote share would do well to look at those at the bottom of the ladder and address their concerns. In many parts of India, these concerns focus on land and livelihood. If Gandhi lost his electoral character by concentrating on these to the exclusion of everything else, Modi could erode his still-substantial standing by concentrating exclusively on the concerns of business — or appearing to, for instance, by sweeping away a raft of checks and balances available to local communities.

These lower-rung rural communities, akin to Delhi’s underclass, are increasingly bereft of representation, revealed in great measure in times of stress. Consider Tamil Nadu’s fishing villages, protesting the impact of a nuclear-power plant on coastal waters, and Odisha’s farming villages, trying to stop their lands being taken over for a giant, steel mill. Cast in a political vacuum, such movements weather the whims of officialdom. So, the protesting fishermen of Kundakulam, more than 8,000 of them, are charged with sedition; more than 18,000 with waging war against the State, reports Mint columnist Sudeep Chakravarti. He writes that FIRs filed against Odisha’s steel-plant protestors are filled with obviously trumped-up charges, such as obscene acts and trading in counterfeit coins.

The Tamil Nadu and Odisha agitators probably occupy some of those rungs between the penurious and the (newly) prosperous, determined to climb higher and use their democratic rights to get there. It will take a special political effort to represent such people. It will take an even greater effort to represent the penurious, zero-asset ones, who have not even started the climb.

Yet, independent India’s political messaging almost exclusively addressed the underclass for more than half a century before Modi (the India-Shining campaign of the Vajpayee era was a failed exception), who managed an unprecedented consolidation of the middle rungs. A consolidation at the bottom could be equally — if not more — successful.

(Samar Halarnkar is editor,, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

also read

US presidential campaign has exposed deep rifts in American society
Show comments